What does it mean to 'be fruitful and multiply' in Genesis?
After God created animals on the sixth day, He set out to do an even greater work. God made man in His own image out of the dust of the earth. Genesis 1:27 tells us, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." Then "God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth'" (Genesis 1:28). God's command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply meant simply that they were to have children. They could not fulfill the rest of God's plan for them—filling the earth, subduing it, and having dominion over it—if they did not first have help. After the flood, "God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth'" (Genesis 9:1). It is important to note that these were not just commands given to those responsible for populating the earth, but blessings. And this blessing still stands for humanity today.
There are many implications for God's blessing to be fruitful and multiply. First we see that part of the purpose for marriage is to have children. God designed marriage as a picture of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:21–33) to be lived out intimately before one's children so that they could begin to understand the character of God. The family also provides the unique experience of discipling a person from birth. Parents have the opportunity to live out the gospel for their children in a way that will influence their children more than anyone else in their lives.
While this is one of many purposes for marriage, it does not mean that couples who don't have children are living in sin. Couples who struggle with infertility are in no way breaking God's command on their lives. Even couples who can have children and don't are not necessarily sinning. However, married couples who are able to have children should seriously pray about having children, knowing that the Bible calls children a blessing (Psalm 127:3–5).
Similarly, God's command to be fruitful and multiply does not mean that it is God's will for every single person to get married. Jesus and Paul both say that in some cases it is better to be able to live a life of celibacy, but that not everyone is able to or called to live a life of celibacy, "only those to whom it is given" (Matthew 19:11; 1 Corinthians 7). Perhaps the clearest argument that God's blessing and command to Adam, Eve, Noah, and Noah's family is not a blanket command for every person to marry and have children is Jesus Himself. He lived a perfect and sinless life, yet Jesus never married nor did He have children.
Another implication of this verse is in the blessing to be fruitful. Throughout the Bible fruitfulness is a metaphor for the blessings that come from righteous living. The primary fruit of one's life that is referred to here is having children. While this is the primary reference of fruitfulness in God's command as given in Genesis, it does not exclude other forms of fruitfulness. God's will is for our lives to bear good fruit in all areas (Galatians 5:22–23). Consider, too, that we can be spiritually fruitful and multiply when we obey God's commands to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).
God's design for humanity as a whole is to have children and fill the earth. He gave people the gift of having children because He knew they would be a joy and a legacy. By being made in His image, He has blessed us with the ability to build and create, to guide and direct, and His desire is that we use these abilities to subdue creation and steward it. God's blessing on Adam and Eve, and later on Noah and his family, became the basis for our way of life and our livelihood.
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